Health care challenges persist in N.S. as government maintains promise to ‘fix’ system

Click to play video: 'Houston government facing challenges in delivering on health care promises'
Houston government facing challenges in delivering on health care promises
WATCH: Nova Scotia MLAs have returned to their constituencies after the legislature’s fall sitting wrapped up Wednesday night. But one important focus for government, opposition parties, and many Nova Scotians is health care. The Liberals say by many metrics, the state of the system is worse than when the Houston government took office more than a year ago – but the premier says improvements take time. Callum Smith reports – Nov 10, 2022

Emergency department pressures at the IWK, the Maritime region’s children’s hospital, and the QEII hospital’s Halifax Infirmary both made headlines this week.

Inside the legislature Wednesday, the final day of the fall sitting, Premier Tim Houston reiterated the campaign promise that helped steer his party to a majority government.

“We were elected on a promise to fix health care,” he said in response to a question from Liberal Leader Zach Churchill. “We are committed to doing that.”

“It’s taking time and it’s taking money,” Houston said. “A $600-million deficit just this year, Mr. Speaker. But we are committed to fixing health care.”

The official Opposition pointed to a ballooning primary care provider waitlist, now exceeding 120,000, and frequent emergency department closures.

“The surgical backlog is now worse than it was prior to the pandemic,” Churchill said. “Virtual care appointments are often at capacity or closed.”

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“The government has introduced no health care legislation and we are no closer to getting people the care they need,” said NDP Leader Claudia Chender.

“In the premier’s words, some may call that disgusting.”

Houston pointed to several initiatives, such as announcing EHS would hire 100 transport operators and changing medical licensing for paramedics to get them working sooner.

On Thursday, Doctors Nova Scotia’s president told Global News she appreciates the government’s commitment to collaboration, but knows fixing the system is a huge task.

“I don’t think it’s something that’s going to be changed within one election cycle,” says Dr. Leisha Hawker, a family doctor at the North End Community Health Centre.

“But I think if we continually invest wisely, especially in primary care, because that’s the foundation of a strong health care system, if we really bolster up our primary care system, that will help with all the other areas of the health care system,” Hawker says.

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But the government inherited an “underfunded and poorly managed health care system for decades,” she says.

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“We’re really hopeful that, although the metrics haven’t really changed significantly so far, we’ll start to see the tides turn.”

Meanwhile, nurses can’t continue to be forced into “Copious amounts of overtime,” says their union president.

“That is what’s frustrating them but it’s also what’s causing them to get hurt,” says Janet Hazelton, the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union head. “The more time you work, the less rest you get, the more likely you are to get hurt.”

She says more emphasis is needed on retention and workplace violence.

Health Minister Michelle Thompson told reporters Friday that improvements have been made.

“I feel that over the last year, we have made strides,” she said. “We’ve made strides in a number of different areas in terms of recruitment and retention. We do have an ‘Action for Health’ plan, it’s the first health plan that addresses the issues in health care in over a decade.”

Neither Thompson nor Houston would commit to a timeline to fulfill their promise to fix the system, other than to say it will “take time.”

Emergency department pressures

Nova Scotia Health said in a statement earlier this week that its QEII hospital is experiencing “serious overcapacity” at the Halifax Infirmary emergency department this week.

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“These conditions are likely to continue through the long weekend,” the health authority stated Tuesday.

Nova Scotia Health said people should still visit the emergency department at the QEII in case of an emergency, and call 911 for urgent medical needs.

Meanwhile, the IWK has been seeing “a substantial increase in the number of patients presenting at our emergency department,” according to spokesperson Ben Maycock earlier this week.

He said in an email the hospital’s main concern is the number of patients with high acuity needs.

“The increase in patient volumes combined with the rise of patients requiring complex and urgent emergency care is placing a strain on many services,” Maycock said.

While the IWK overall isn’t over capacity at the moment, there are longer-than-usual wait times for emergency care.

“The IWK is working diligently to address the increased demand for our services,” Maycock said, adding patients should not hesitate to visit in case of emergency.

Health ministers seek more money from Ottawa

The health minister recently returned from a meeting with the federal government seeking more support from Ottawa.

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As it stands, the federal government covers about 22 per cent of health-care costs and the rest is up to provincial and territorial governments.

Those governments have formally requested Ottawa increase its contribution to 35 per cent — a potential funding increase across the country of more than $40 billion.

But Canadians may want to ask themselves why provinces are demanding more money from Ottawa in health transfers, while they simultaneously “turn around and give tax breaks to the wealthiest,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday.

He said while the federal government is committed to increasing funding for health care in Canada, provinces could be using more of their own funds and tax bases to address significant challenges facing the health system nationwide.

— with files from Karla Renić, Richard Zussman and Teresa Wright

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Unpaid caregivers in Nova Scotia not feeling supported

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